Ashima Ohri

A business economist, lawyer, and writer.

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"Future belongs to media companies that can create the best multi-platform consumer experience."Shyamala Venkatachalam, Chief Legal Officer, Zee Entertainment Enterprises

Venkatachalam talks about her illustrious journey in law, her most memorable experience, the impact of COVID on the media industry and much more in this exclusive interview with Ashima Ohri, Managing Editor, BW Legal World.

Many Congratulations on featuring in BW Legal World’s General Counsel 100 list for the year 2020. We’d love to know about your journey so far, most memorable experiences, and your thoughts on receiving this Award. 

My journey so far has been extremely satisfying spanning across diverse sectors, starting with Murablack India Limited, a 100% Export Oriented Unit set up to produce specialty electro conductive grade carbon black for use in the manufacturing of dry cell batteries, paints, and pigments.  

From Murablack I moved on to Dynamatic Technologies Limited, a visionary entrepreneurial company that designs and builds highly engineered products for Automotive, Aerospace, Hydraulic, and Security applications with futuristic design, engineering and manufacturing facilities in India, Europe and UK. At Dynamatic, in addition to my legal assignments, I was also handed the additional responsibility of managing Dynamatic’s largest OEM relationship as the single point contact. 

From Dynamatic, I switched gears completely to the world of Media & Entertainment, where I have spent over 17 years. During my time in the industry, I have had the privilege of being associated with reputed global & Indian media companies including Set Discovery Private Limited, Star Den Media Services Private Limited, Media Pro Enterprise India Private Limited, Star India Private Limited and now ZEE Entertainment Enterprises Ltd. 

Amongst my many memorable experiences, the one that prepared me for the future was at my very first job at Murablack where I was thrown into the fire of protracted litigation, both domestic and internationally. The plant and process technology that was imported from a leading European engineering company, unfortunately, failed at the trial stage, with the main reactor not performing to specification. With a failing business, there was an exodus of management personnel and I had to work directly with the Indian promoters/directors for legal, financial and regulatory resolutions. The problems were particularly complex given that it involved foreign equipment and financing. The Company was a 100% EOU and, at the time of import in 1991, the Indian economy was just on the cusp of liberalization.  

Managing the Litigation at the London Court of International Arbitration (LCIA), with Swiss suppliers, winning a large award for the Company is one of my most memorable experiences.   

Similarly, my journey in the Media & Entertainment space allowed me to witness massive technological shifts in production, distribution, consumption and monetization of content. My memorable experiences in the media space, would be working with multiple stakeholders within the media ecosystem in jointly shaping the regulatory roadmap, and in developing new business models as per the evolving industry landscape.  

This award brings a sense of gratitude towards my fellow colleagues who have over the years made my professional journey a truly joyous learning experience.   

What do you attribute your success to? What would you say has helped you emerge as a top General Counsel in your industry?  

I attribute my success to some of my decisions that have helped shape me into the person I am today, professionally and personally.   

Lifelong Learning: I am a firm believer of the adage ‘Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself. Being a student for life, regularly upgrading my technological and legal knowledge through a blend of experience and continuous education has immensely helped me support my business colleagues through each innovation cycle. It has also enabled me to bring my professional experience to the classroom while taking away best practices and industry ideas from the academic world.  

The switch to the television media space from the manufacturing sector was accidental, but it altered the course of my life. I joined the industry at the onset of rapid growth and a time of continuous change with the adoption of new distribution platforms. Adapting to a new industry, and yet hitting the ground running to counsel businesses on the evolving landscape was a challenge I took on.  

Seamlessly embracing risks that come as part of my role, and having the conviction to take decisions fearlessly and responsibly with mitigation plans in place.     

What advice would you have for others who want to set off in a similar direction?  

Look at every challenge and every adverse situation in your life as opportunities to grow rather than roadblocks.  

Never let anything or anyone deter your confidence and always focus on having a solution-oriented mindset to win the trust of your colleagues based on merit alone. 

The role of a legal professional is not limited to understanding the law, but to strike a fine balance between various competing (often conflicting) goals across businesses. They are often identified by their business colleagues as roadblocks to business goals and are therefore faced with the challenge of having colleagues accept them as an equal partner in collectively realizing the same. By developing legally compliant and commercially viable solutions for the business, one will be able to win over the confidence of your colleagues by challenging accepted assumptions.  

Would you please share with our readers the array of work you handle at your organization? What is your in-house team size, and would you please allow us a little peek into your routine at work? 

As the Chief Legal Officer at ZEEL, I head the legal and regulatory affairs for the entire network across domestic and international businesses of the Company. The scope of my role spans across negotiating complex business contracts, advising businesses in evolving and executing new business models, policy research.  

Team size: 45   

In what ways has your business sector/industry been impacted by the pandemic and the subsequent second wave? How long would it take for the industry to revive? 

COVID lockdown led to unprecedented growth in content viewership, something which the industry has never witnessed. However, this did not enthuse the industry as it normally would have. Combating the menace of Covid-19 meant separating people from each other, whilst ensuring business continuity. The core of the industry lies in creating intellectual property (IP) in the form of scripted and non-scripted shows and monetizing the same in the form of advertisement and subscription revenues. The absolute lockdown impacted both these activities.  

The Covid-19 pandemic did lead to a halt in terms of original content production during the first wave, but organizations and teams across the sector swiftly adapted to a remote working model leading to minimal disruption on the business continuity front. 

The nationwide lockdown during the first wave impacted business and consumer spending, but the M&E sector witnessed a steady recovery once the relaxations were lifted. The sector was much more prepared to deal with a second wave and several steps are being taken to brace from the impact of any impending future waves.

What have been your key learnings as the legal gatekeepers of your company from the year past and what are your predictions for the future? 

The biggest learning has been to adapt to ‘Work from home’ and manage risks remotely. The COVID pandemic has accelerated the shift of content consumption to digital thus hastening the pace of digital transformation within the M&E industry.  

Post-COVID, we will witness the next wave of industry transformation as most networks will struggle to survive, accelerating the pace of consolidation which had begun earlier;  

The future will belong to those media companies which can build a confluence of great content and technology to create the best multi-platform consumer experience whilst navigating a complex regulatory environment.   

Any significant legislation or decision of the top court that has been a welcome change or has been rather mistimed in your opinion.

The judgment of the nine-judge bench of Hon’ble Supreme Court unanimously holding that “right to privacy” is protected as an intrinsic part of the right to life and personal liberty as part of the freedoms guaranteed under the Constitution assumes extreme significance.   

In this new age where “big data” has become the common thread for all forms of human consumption, the judgment lays the road map addressing the dangers to privacy in an age of information that can originate from both state and non-state actors.  

An experience, matter, or person that left a lasting impression on you. 

My parents raised me and my siblings without any gender bias, giving each of us a sense of our inherent potential. They simply asked us to follow our dreams, help others and to maximize happiness.   

What keeps you busy when you’re not working? Any favorite book or movie/series that you'd like to recommend to our readers. 

Always striving to strike a healthy work-life balance is something I have stood by in life, much to my seniors’ chagrin at times! But I truly believe that pursuing my interests – travel, photography, music, fitness, and spending quality time with family and friends has enabled me to perform better at work. I can positively say that my personal and professional lives complement each other.   

One of my all-time favorite books I would recommend for readers would be Ayn Rand’s ‘The Fountainhead’.  


Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house

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